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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Monday, September 19, 2011

"Diversity" at TAM - how diverse is diverse?

This piece by Brian Thomson should not be allowed to go without comment and maybe controversy. I'm pleased to see that women, for example, were well-represented at the most recent TAM but I question the claim that, "it's essential that no one feel unwelcome or excluded due to race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation" (my emphasis).

Thomson goes on near the end to complain about religious believers often being made uncomfortable at Skeptic events.

But why, exactly, is it essential that no one feel unwelcome or excluded because of her religion? Surely at least some religious teachings must fly in the face of everything that the James Randi Educational Foundation and TAM stand for, no matter how narrowly JREF interprets its remit. So why wouldn't it be perfectly natural and inevitable that people who believe at least those teachings feel somewhat unwelcome?

Case in point: what if my religion teaches, contrary to everything discovered through the last four or five centuries of scientific investigation, that the universe is 6000 years old, that fossils are the remains of animals killed in a great flood a few thousand years ago, and that the diversity of human languages was caused by a miraculous act when a divine being decided to make communication more difficult (as a punishment for human hubris)? If I have those religious beliefs, surely I'm likely to feel rather unwelcome if I attend a conference such as TAM. Furthermore, surely there's a limit to how far organisers and other attendees should bend over backwards to make me feel welcome. Doubtless they should treat me in a friendly, courteous way, as long as I reciprocate, but they shouldn't go out of their way to leave my views unchallenged.

There can, of course, be reasonable disagreements about how far the remit of an organisation such as the JREF should extend. That's a matter for James Randi and others who get to make the decision. There can also be reasonable disagreements about how far the remit of the Skeptic movement, more generally, should extend. How far, in particular, should it involve itself in sceptical scrutiny of the supernatural claims made by religion? Different people may, reasonably and rationally, want to draw lines in different places.

But are we really going to say that your religious beliefs should make no difference at all to how welcome you feel at a conference such as TAM? Really? No matter what the content of those religious beliefs may be?

And what about other beliefs? Why single out religion? Even if you think religion should get a free pass, and that religious believers should be coddled, there must be at least some beliefs that organisers and attendees should not bend over backwards to coddle. Should TAM and other such conferences be run so that no one feels unwelcome because she believes in astrology, or in the existence of ghosts, or Bigfoot, or in UFOs stocked with bulging-eyed aliens and anal probes? Once again, by all means be friendly and courteous to such people, but you can't expect them to feel especially welcome within a movement devoted to debunking these kinds of ideas.

I see two issues here - first, the remit of the Skeptic movement. How narrowly should it confine itself in the things that it submits to sceptical scrutiny? No matter how narrowly it confines itself, at least somebody is going to feel not entirely welcome, and the broader the movement's remit the more people that will be. Doubtless there are reasons - at least in many cases - to express disagreement in a civil way. But you simply cannot guarantee that everyone, no matter what her ideas may be, will feel entirely welcome to the meetings of a movement that actually exists to be sceptical about ideas.

Second, this is an example of the unfortunate tendency to think that ideas are analogous to the sorts of personal attributes that include biological sex, gender identification, sexuality, skin colour, ethnic or socioeconomic background, and the like. We have very good reason not to discriminate against people on the basis of these attributes. These things have little or nothing to do with the things that we really value in people, such as good character (kindness, honesty, courage, and so on), talent, and skills; and it is cruel and destructive to act as if they do.

But it is not, generally speaking, cruel or destructive to disagree with someone's ideas. There can be exceptions, as when ideas are attacked as a mere excuse to treat someone badly when you are actually motivated to do so on other grounds (skin colour, perhaps, or perhaps just idiosyncratic dislike). Generally, however, disagreeing with ideas, disputing ideas, choosing to assist or oppose people on the basis of their ideas, and so on, are all perfectly legitimate. Such things as people's religious beliefs, moral beliefs, and political ideologies simply do not belong on the same list as "race, gender ... or sexual orientation".

Perhaps, after much introspection and debate, the Skeptic movement will decide that its remit is sufficiently narrow that it will not submit religious doctrines (any of them) to sceptical scrutiny. It's hard for me to imagine how it could come to that view in any principled way, but even if it does so that will have to be the outcome of a long internal argument. The movement can't adopt as a starting point the thesis that it must never make anyone feel unwelcome because of her religious beliefs.

Frankly, the idea, expressed in a blanket way, that no one should feel unwelcome or excluded because of her religion is sententious claptrap. It is, in fact, a form of sententious claptrap that merits sceptical exposure, scrutiny, and opposition. The Skeptic movement can aim at courtesy and other good behaviour, but it cannot give a free pass to one subset of ideas so as to guarantee that people with those particular ideas will feel at home. Not if it wants to be principled.

The Skeptic movement itself stands for certain ideas and for the scrutiny of ideas. That means that contradictory ideas or ideas that fail to withstand scrutiny will be, to some extent, unwelcome. People who adhere to those ideas will find that the movement is not for them. This is inevitable, and it's not a bad thing. A movement based on ideas and on rational scrutiny simply can't be all things to all people.


Marshall said...

This theme rang a bell & after a bit of a search I turned up this from Jerry:

What irks me about all this are two things.  The first is the complete omission of contrasting anti-accommodationist views.  There is a huge subset of AAAS members who don’t feel that science and faith are in harmony—indeed, that they are in dire conflict. ... What about the many of us who feel that the best thing for science—and humanity as a whole—is not respectful dialogue with evangelical Christians, but the eradication of evangelical Christianity [through reasoned argument that changes minds (or affects minds not made up) over time]?

(There are interesting comments, and I seem to recall it was a bloggy theme for a while there.)

The situation seems completely analogous to me: the topic of the AAAS meeting was exploring how communication with Evangelicals might be improved. Jerry objected that people who deny that such communication is reasonable were not given podium time. Of course you aren't responsible for what Jerry does, but do you think he was wrong here? If Skeptics can gather amongst themselves, should not Compatibilists be permitted likewise, on pain of inconsistency?

(Anyway I don't think Brian is advocating presenting theism from the podium. I think he is saying that the purpose of JREF and TAM is to advocate critical thinking to whoever wants to listen, even people who could be better at it. Which sounds right to me.)

Russell Blackford said...

I'm not following, Marshall. I never said that Thomson wanted theism to be advocated from the podium.

The point is that you can't guarantee that people won't feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, excluded, or whatever, at your meeting because of their ideas. You can't even try to do that in the way that you can try not to make them feel unwelcome, etc., because of, say, their skin colour.

If ideas are expressed, someone with contrary ideas can always be made to feel "unwelcome".

E.g. I wouldn't feel very welcome at a conference put on by an organisation dedicated to sexual chastity. But I wouldn't have some sort of right to go along there and feel welcome. I could criticise the organisation or its ideas, or say that its speakers are all idiots, or whatever, but it would be silly if someone within the organisation said that it must make sure that people with any view whatever about sex feel welcome at its conference. Of course I would feel out of place, unwelcome, excluded, etc., at such a conference.

And accommodationists are quite welcome to form their own organisations and hold their own conferences. If they do so, someone with different views can't complain about feeling unwelcome there. They can, of course, criticise what is said there. But if I go along to a conference put on by the Accommodationist Society, full of accommodationist speakers and their fans, I can't then complain that I feel unwelcome.

What we can do is criticise if an organisation such as AAAS covertly turns itself into an organisation to promote accommodationism. The nature of AAAS is that it should not be the Accommodationist Society. If it openly turns into the Accommodationist Society, many members will, quite properly, leave it. Far from it being an exact analogy it is utterly different.

But again, no one is saying that accommodationists can't have their own organisations if that's what they are openly doing. That would be a good analogy.

Just the same as Christians can have their own organisations, fascists can have their own organisations, etc., etc. People with all sorts of ideas, good or bad, get to have their own organisations of like-minded people, and they needn't pretend to be welcoming of others who might have different views.

And just so I am not misunderstood, I'm not saying that advocating atheism should necessarily be part of JREF's remit. That's entirely a decision for it. But even so, it can never guarantee that people of all religious views will feel welcome, included, etc. Surely at least some religious views are going to be antithetical to it, no matter how narrowly it draws its boundaries.

Charles Sullivan said...

I think the view that religion should get a free pass within the skeptical movement is grounded in NOMA.

And NOMA, it seems to me, deserves to be examined critically and skeptically.

Russell Blackford said...

I agree, Charles, though whether TAM is the right place for that is another question. They do get to work out how wide their remit is, at least up to a point (because surely there are some things that clearly fall within their remit).

But what they can't do is guarantee never to make any religious people at all feel unwelcome because of their religious ideas. Even if they can make deists, say, feel welcome, or non-literalists, it's going to be a lot harder making Protestant fundamentalists feel welcome, or certain kinds of Catholics who see miracles all over the place.

Bruce said...

Well, I'll say this. As someone who isn't actually that interested in Big-S Skeptics tackling the God question (gasp), I find all the supererogated narrowings of Big-S Skepticism to be alienating.

There's a palpable tribalism, and sense of entitlement about the whole thing that I find utterly repugnant. Not that I make any claim to be able to demand anything - I'm not a member of JREF or any of the other Big-Ses.

The 'take back' rhetoric, the parsing of The Definition of 'Skepticism' as the product of a universal conspiracy by the history of philosophy, and the horrid nostalgia in Barbara Dresher's recent rants, has perhaps forever in my mind tainted Big-S Skepticism with the smell of a Tea Party rally. She doesn't want 'atheist activists' messing up her turf, and now I aim to be cooperative.

This buisiness with TAM expands the boundaries I'm not willing to cross, just a little further. At least not in a friendly capacity - there is the matter of climate change denialism in Big-S Skepticism which I'm still happy to smack.

Abigail said...

Bruce-Oh, so Big S Skepticism is sceptical about climate change science?!? Hmmm...

James Sweet said...

So this reminds me of something that happened not too long ago...

There's this Facebook group called Grief Beyond Belief, for nonbelievers (or those who are believers but are beginning to doubt) struggling with grief. It's kind of an important thing, since we hear crap like "She's in a better place" and whatnot all too often. Those who don't believe in an afterlife find a lot of the traditional "comforting" assertions to be rather disturbing. (And given that every believer I've seen grieving seems to suffer just as much as non-believers, I question just how "comforting" those assertions really are even to those who nominally believe it, but now I'm ranging far afield...)

ANYWAY, not too long ago, a bit of a kerfuffle started up because a couple of members of the group made it clear they believed in spirits, etc., while considering themselves atheists. We heard things like, "Nobody can really know what happens after death, so you shouldn't make these assumptions!," and one group member went so far as to assert there was documentary evidence for ghosts.

This resulted in some painful soul-searching (ba-dump) for the group in trying to decide just how broadly it ought to be aimed. Surely those who consider themselves "atheists" in that they reject the traditional god narrative being foisted upon them by their communities, yet who also believe in various other supernatural garbage related to mortality -- surely those people need a place to grieve too. But OTOH, it makes it a less welcoming place for those of us who are seeking a place to grieve without any supernatural "comforts".

And I really do mean "less welcoming" -- what sparked the row was a commenter referring to the sensation of receiving messages from a deceased loved one as "delusions", which they plainly are (even though I see value in these experiences myself, unlike the commenter in question, but there was nothing offensive about calling them "delusions" when obviously these things cannot be real!) and that brought down a teapot-sized tempest of criticism from that small contingent who considered themselves atheists but wanted to reserve a belief in an afterlife.

So now I finally come to my point, why this is relevant: Those advocating for a more open group did not seem to understand the concept that since the whole point of the group was to create a safe haven free from at least some types of supernatural beliefs, one could not simply assert that more tolerance was always better, that we should welcome people with different viewpoints, etc. The same argument taken to its logical conclusion would completely undermine the point of the group! It was really disturbing to me the extent to which many people did not seem to understand that.

I see a parallel here. Thomson apparently fails to see the contradiction of asserting that an organization dedicated towards intolerance of bullshit should be automatically and unconditionally tolerant towards other people's X even if some of us think it's bullshit. Just as with the kerfuffle with GBB, a case can be made that religion should be tolerated (or, in the other case, that those who hold non-traditional beliefs about the afterlife should be tolerated) -- but you do not make that case by simply asserting the value of embracing diversity and practicing tolerance, because the very foundational principles of the groups in question rest on a selective intolerance. You can say, "We should tolerate X because of reason Y," but you cannot say, "We should tolerate X because tolerance is awesome!" To attempt the latter argument undermines the entire point of the group/organization!

Bruce said...

No, Abigail. Not *by definition*.

There's been that discussion about Big-S Skepticism *by definition* not overstepping its boundaries into other professions, but I don't see this as realistic, or even particularly honest. The idea of Big-S skepticism keeping to itself seems to me to be the kind of Platonic ideal designed for equivocation.

James Randi talks about factories generating heat, and tree-hugging ideology undermining climate science? Well then that's No True Skepticism! What a convenient out-clause!

I don't buy it. The people being territorial about this stuff have never had the consistency, nor the fortitude, to get stuck into Randi the way they've sunk the boot into other people. (Nor for that matter, have the Skeptics responsible for the ACARA stuff up been similarly grilled).

To me, The Definition(tm) is less of a mission statement, than it is an excuse. And one accompanied by poorly-veiled hostility at that.